Should a Christian Get a Tattoo?

Tattoos are remarkably popular right now. In the past in the West, they were viewed as desirable only within limited social groups like soldiers, sailors, gang members, and bikers. Acceptance was generally confined to males of lower economic classes, For professionals or women they would be unthinkable.

There are a number of cultural and religious reasons that tattoos were viewed negatively by past generations in the West, reasons that I’ll summarize a bit further on. But regardless of our earlier Western distaste towards tattoos, they are no longer sought out only by enlisted military men, gang members, and bikers, but are popular among younger people regardless of social class, gender, or religious background.

Most young people who get tattoos do so innocently, with no intention of expressing rebellion against core values of their parents or religious community. They usually know little or nothing about traditional society’s reluctance to approve tattoos. Current fashion makes tattoos appear attractive and desirable, so young people get them. With this in mind, I want to make clear that by explaining why tattoos were disapproved by traditional western culture I am not condemning people who have chosen to be tattooed. I am not labeling them rebels, or suggesting that Christians with tattoos are spiritually deficient. In fact, I have close family members who have tattoos.

While Christians should scrupulously avoid hostility or self-righteousness towards people with tattoos (imagine how absurd it would be for Christians to reject a new convert because he or she has tattoos!), we should honestly consider whether the tattooing fad is something that Christians—even Christians who already have tattoos—should encourage.

If you haven’t been tattooed and are considering whether you want to be, here are some things you should consider. Tattooing has a long association with the worst kinds of paganism. Even pagan Graeco-Roman civilization associated tattooing with barbaric, violent peoples like the Picts, Scythians, and Huns. Missionaries encountering new peoples also associated tattooing with repulsive practices like cannibalism. Even today, young people with tattoos are statistically more likely to engage in violence or other socially deviant behavior. 1

Because of their pagan origins, both body piercing and tattooing are forbidden by Old Testament Law:

“You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:28).”

Because of these commandments, religious Jews to this day shun tattooing as an abominable practice. 2

Historically, the tattooing of slaves and prisoners has added further stigma to the practice. It was outlawed after Christianity became the majority religion in Europe.

This cultural and historical context raises the question of whether the living skin of a human being miraculously made in the God’s image is really an appropriate “canvas” for the relatively crude art of needles and ink. Ink colors fade, muscle tone deteriorates. After 40 years, what was once a colorful tattoo on the back of a youthful leg may look like varicose veins—or worse. Even more importantly, As we age and mature, our perspective changes. Maturity brings changes in priorities, world-views, behavior, grooming habits, life-style and many other things. If you are tattooed in a prominent place—even with a Christian symbol—you “brand” myself for life with a decision made at one particular stage. Regardless of who you become, the impression that others will have of you will continue to be shaped by your tattoo—and tattoos are difficult and expensive to remove.

All of these factors should make a Christian consider whether getting tattooed is showing proper respect for the body as the dwelling of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)?

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1Corinthians 6:19-20).

Although there are strong biblical, psychological, and historical grounds against tattoos, Scripture doesn’t absolutely forbid Christians to get tattooed. Getting tattoed is a matter of Christian liberty. But getting a tattoo is also very likely an impulsive decision, that may have some bad long term consequences.

  1. The findings of this study may impact the general perception of adolescents. The results show that the presence of tattoos and body piercings in adolescents is associated with greater risk-taking behaviors of these adolescents in the areas of gateway drug use, hard drug use, sexual activity, suicide, and disordered eating behaviors. In particular, young adolescents with tattoos and body piercings are at greater risk for suicide and cigarette, alcohol, and marijuana use. Violence is found to a greater degree in males with tattoos and females with body piercings. Finally, abuse of hard drugs such as cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, and Ecstasy increases as the number of body piercings increases. The presence of tattoos and body piercings in adolescents does not necessarily indicate risk-taking behavior in particular individuals, however, the presence of such should alert parents, teachers, and health care providers of the possibility of greater health risk in adolescents with tattoos and/or body piercings, and appropriate care should be implemented.
    Clear differences were found between adolescents with and without tattoos and/or body piercings. Additional investigation is warranted. Examining a larger population of adolescents with tattoos and body piercings may show significant differences in the areas that were found to be suggestive of differences in this study. (Tattoos and Body Piercings as Indicators of Adolescent Risk-Taking Behaviors Sean T. Carroll, MD, Robert H. Riffenburgh, PHD, Timothy A. Roberts, MD and Elizabeth B. Myhre, CPNP, MSN, PEDIATRICS Vol. 109 No. 6 June 2002, pp. 1021-1027) Back To Article
  2. In our day, the prohibition against all forms of tattooing regardless of their intent, should be maintained. In addition to the fact that Judaism has a long history of distaste for tattoos, tattooing becomes even more distasteful in a contemporary secular society that is constantly challenging the Jewish concept that we are created b’tzelem Elokim (in the image of God) and that our bodies are to be viewed as a precious gift on loan from God, to be entrusted into our care and [are] not our personal property to do with as we choose. Voluntary tattooing even if not done for idolatrous purposes expresses a negation of this fundamental Jewish perspective.
    As tattoos become more popular in contemporary society, there is a need to reinforce the prohibition against tattooing in our communities and counterbalance it with education regarding the traditional concept that we are created b’tzelem Elokim. But, however distasteful we may find the practice there is no basis for restricting burial to Jews who violate this prohibition or even limiting their participation in synagogue ritual. The fact that someone may have violated the laws of kashrut at some point in his or her life or violated the laws of Shabbat would not merit such sanctions; the prohibition against tattooing is certainly no worse. It is only because of the permanent nature of the tattoo that the transgression is still visible. (quotation from Rabbi Alan Lucas in Back To Article
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